Stop what you’re doing and imagine the smell and taste of that delicious spicy BBQ fresh from the smoker. Mmmmmm – delicious! BBQ smokers are a great way to cook both meat and veg, but why are they mostly round?
BBQ smokers are round for two reasons; firstly because many are made from recycled metal drum barrels (a style copied when made brand new), and secondly because US service personnel brought rounded Kamado-style smokers back from Japan after WWII. However, some BBQ smokers are square too.
Let’s dig down into this smokin’ subject in greater detail, and compare round smokers to those square ones. We’ll also look at what’s going on inside a smoker, consider whether we need an offset or vertical model – and also decide if a thicker metal or insulated firebox is best.
Most BBQ Smokers Are Round (But Some Are Square)
We all love the smoky aroma and flavor of meat that’s been slow-cooked in a smoker. If you like cooking outside and eating barbecued food, a smoker is a must-have piece of kit for your yard.
Unlike your grill, the smoker cooks low and slow. It has to be spacious inside, as it needs to contain the meat or fish, the source of the smoke (more about this later), and leave plenty of space for the smoke to circulate around the food.
If you go onto a smokers’ forum, you’ll see that one of the biggest debates is around the best shape for smokers. If you picture smoking something on the BBQ, you’ll probably imagine using a Weber-style, kettle BBQ. The dome-shaped top certainly allows plenty of space for the smoke to circulate.
Vertical smokers also tend to have domed lids, and offset smokers can combine a rectangular box with a curved, half-domed lid. However, a box smoker is square or rectangular, as are many home-made designs. As you’re about to find out, there are a lot of different styles out there.
There’s also the home-made option. Smoking enthusiasts love the challenge of building their own, and the consensus seems to be that shape and size don’t matter, provided it produces delicious smoked meat. These ingenious creators tend to use whatever type of metal tank or cylinder is available, with form coming second to function.
If you’re new to smoking, we’d recommend buying a smoker before getting out the welding torch. With so many different designs on the market, which type of smoker is the best for you?
What’s Going On Inside a Smoker?
Whatever their shape, smokers work in the same basic way: there is heat and there is smoke, and there’s a place to put the meat. The temperature is far lower than you’d set your grill, as the idea here is to gently cook your meat or fish, while the wafting smoke imparts its woody flavor to the food.
Unlike a grill, the smoker has to be enclosed to keep that lovely smoke inside. A good smoker will hold the relatively low temperature of 225 to 275 °F, so you can slowly cook the meat. This ensures that your chicken, beef or pork won’t dry out during the long smoking process.
How exactly the smoker works depends on the type you choose. Firstly, there’s a choice of heat sources. The heat can come from wood, charcoal, gas or electric; however, the smokiness comes from adding wood pellets.
So as well as the heat source, there’s a space for wood chips to give that gorgeous, smokey flavor. Choose from mesquite, oak, pecan and hickory: each has its own flavor and aroma. Go for hickory for that BBQ sweetness, or pecan for a more savory, nutty edge.
As well as heat source, you need to decide the layout of the smoker. Offset smokers have separate chambers for the firebox and the food, which is a good way of keeping a consistent cooking temperature. A vertical water smoker has three separate chambers: heat, water and smoke.
The simplest design is the drum smoker: charcoal, grill, lid. Cheap and cheerful, but not as easy to regulate. Finally, the techiest option is the electric smoker and box smoker, which look like refrigerators, and make the process look very sleek and pro kitchen-like.
All these designs are basically doing the same thing: indirect slow cooking while imparting smoke. Which is the best for you depends on various factors: space, budget, your cooking style (leave well alone or keep checking), your preferred heat source, and how many mouths you have to feed.
Round Smokers Vs Square Smokers
You tend to see more round smokers – so are they better? Not necessarily, but there are some great round smokers out there. We love the Kamado style, those distinctive egg-shaped, ceramic smokers that US servicemen brought back from Japan.
The simple shape allows plenty of smoke to circulate, and unlike most other designs, the Kamado can double as a grill as well as a slow cooker. This is a definite advantage, and helps to offset the typically higher price tag. They are pretty compact, which can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on space and the size of your family.
Round cookers don’t have to be sleek and expensive like the stylish Kamado. The classic drum smoker is often unfairly called the “Ugly drum smoker”, which seems mean, as we actually love its homey, industrial feel. This is direct cooking rather than indirect cooking with added chips, as the charcoal fire actually does the cooking. Sure, it keeps things simple, but does mean that you have to be in control of what you’re cooking.
You can get sophisticated pellet grills based around the barrel shape (except the barrel is on its side). The pellets are in a separate unit, and impart both heat and a gentle smokey flavor. Like the Kamado, you can also crank up the heat and use it as a conventional grill.
The best-known rectangular smokers are the box smokers (the ones that look like fridges). The heat source is at the bottom, and the food is placed on a series of refrigerator-style racks above it. Offset burners also come with rectangular shaped boxes, and enthusiasts will tell you that a big advantage of this shape is that you can more easily change or add to the cooking rack.
Offset Smokers Vs Vertical Smokers
Another dilemma: do you want an offset or vertical smoker? Both have a similar principle: to provide indirect cooking heat while controlling the amount of smoke.
The offset smoker can be a big beast of a BBQ, so it’s a good option if you like mass catering. There is a big, BBQ-style chamber with a domed lid and a smoke stack, with a separate fire box to one side. A vent controls how much smoke and heat get through.
Our tip is buy a good one. A cheap offset smoker is harder to control as the vents aren’t so sensitive.You also might get a hotspot on the side next to the firebox that results in uneven cooking. A top-quality model uses reverse flow heat to overcome the hotspot problem (clue: if the smokestack is at the firebox end, it’s good).
Vertical smokers are super-popular (and round), and their cute compact style makes them suitable for most yards. The lowest chamber has the heat source (charcoal, gas or electric), followed by the water pan. This ingenious design both tempers the heat and prevents the meat from drying out. Above this is the smoking chamber and racks for the meat.
These small, inexpensive smokers are ideal for beginners. They don’t cost much to buy or run, and tuck neatly into a corner of the patio. However, if you’ve a lot of hungry people to feed, you’re better off with the bigger offset style.
Thicker Firebox Metal Vs Insulated Firebox
One more thing to think about: the material for the firebox. This is another (literally) hot topic on the forums. The traditional smoker’s firebox is made from metal, the thicker the better as it retains heat more effectively. The typical offset smoker firebox is around a quarter of an inch thick.
However, increasingly, manufacturers and home enthusiasts are using fireproof ceramic blankets as an insulating layer. This is on top of the inner skin, and then it has an outer skin on top: a ceramic sandwich. This can give you as much as two and a half inches of thickness.
The advantage is a more efficient smoker that cooks more evenly. Another big plus is that the outer surface doesn’t get as hot: safer for kids and pets. It’s also the better option if you plan to smoke on cold winter days.
So there we have it – is your heart still set on a rounded smoker, or do you think it’s hip to be square with a more angular model.
Either way, the smoke circulates inside in more-or-less the same fashion, and all types of smokers cook mouthwatering BBQ that you just can’t get enough of – so ultimately it doesn’t really matter.
Perhaps the only thing that will impact your decision is budget. Will you opt for a cheap and cheerful DIY “Ugly drum smoker”, a mid range sleek ceramic Kamado – or go for that top of the range fully insulated offset square firebox model?
I guess the food all tastes the same whatever you decide. 🙂